(Note: This entry contains references a sexual act. I would never had added a note like this if not for the scars from teaching last year in a district with the most active organization in the country of the organization of parents that tries to ban books from school libraries. So if you have a problem with content of this nature, please stop reading.)
I hadn’t picked up a book by Morrison since I was in high school, and honestly forgot just how unbelievably talented she is as a writer and stylist. I can only think of a handful of other authors I’ve read who have a similar effect on me just through their use of language (Joyce, Dostoevsky, and Hemingway are the others that come to mind). I’m feeling very intimidated in my attempts to write anything critical for a public audience about such a work.
The Bluest Eye, taken as a whole, serves simultaneously as an affirmation of the natural and cultural beauty of Americans who are considered black, and an indictment of the racist society that denies this beauty and internalizes the denial within many blacks. While there are no developed white characters within the novel, white people and whiteness itself make frequent cameos to demonstrate the roots of self-loathing found in many characters. While whiteness undoubtedly functions as a terror throughout the novel, Morrison’s depiction of whiteness is unique (within my reading at this point) in how it functions deterministically to create self-loathing black characters. Morrison outlines both the process and resistance to it from the perspective of a black female:
Then they had grown. Edging into life from the back door. Becoming. Everybody in the world was in a position to give them orders. White women said, “do this.” White children said, “ Give me that.” White men said, “Come here.” Black men said, “Lay down.” The only people they need not take orders from were black children and each other. But they took all of that and re-created it in their own image. They ran the houses of white people, and knew it. When white men beat their men, they cleaned up the blood and went home to receive abuse from the victim. They beat their children with one hand and stole for them with the other (108).
The most clear instances of the process are found thought the depiction of Pauline and Cholly Breedlove. Both visit horrors upon their children thanks to their experiences with white people. The experiences take very different forms.
Cholly is the victim of overt dehumanization at the hands of two white men. While in the midst of losing his virginity after the funeral for his closest relative, Cholly and his sexual partner, Darlene, are discovered in a field by two white hunters. With guns in hand, the two white men force Cholly to continue the act while addressing him by various derogatory names and criticizing his sexual performance. The white men turn the act of sex into one of rape. Cholly is forced to physically rape Darlene, while the two white men psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually rape Cholly. For Cholly, sex is transformed from an act of pleasure and desire into one of hate and control. Cholly’s acts “With a violence born of total helplessness” (116). Cholly continues to act with a similar violence throughout the rest of his life.
Pauline’s internalization of inferiority takes a less overt path. Pauline is destroyed by Cholly’s violence, as well as by “her education in the movies” which gave her a “scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen” (95). This leads Pauline to seek out and thrive in a role as a domestic worker for white families, where she takes on the stereotypical “mammy” role. Seeking the beauty she imagines through film, she embraces domestic work and becomes “the ideal servant” (99). This comes at the price of a denial of her identity. While too her employers she is “Polly,” her children know her only as Mrs. Breedlove. When Cholly and Pauline’s daughter, Pecola, visits Pauline at the house of her employment one day, Pauline denies to the white child any connection to her own daughter. Pauline embraces an idealized image of whiteness as beauty, while conversely seeing herself and family as ugliness.
The sins of the mother and father are ultimately transfered to the daughter, Pecola. Pecola cannot recognize any beauty in her self. After being raped and impregnated by Cholly, Pecola seeks out a healer to give her blue eyes. When Pecola gets her eyes, her identity and being is rent, as indicated by the conversation she has with herself (152-162). The desire for beauty that is external to the self serves to violently destroy the young girl’s psyche, bringing the novel to a tragic end. In her desire for whiteness as property, the beauty she sees in whiteness as represented by blue eyes, Pecola suffers from the terrorist attacks that whiteness levied against her parents.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. London: Vintage, 1994.
Next: Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler